I’m going to start by saying that I’m not rubbishing those of you who have set New Year goals. I’ve got some for 2018 too. But the trouble with goals is the pressure you put on yourself to achieve them.
Take my 2017 goals.
• Do winter ML training and also do 15 winter days for log book – ✔️
• Lead climb VD outdoors
• Try ice climbing ✔️
• Half marathon ✔️
• Climb 6b indoors by the end of the year and be able to lead 5s.
• Reach 60 parkruns
• Lead an Alpine route
• Try skiing ✔️
• Learn to ride a motorbike
Now the ticks hide the real story behind last year. I’d already committed to doing the winter ML training and where’s the stress in going on a training course? Getting 15 days for my log book became quite stressful as this winter started though. I found myself putting unnecessary pressure in myself to do routes and weirdly became quite nervous about navigating in white outs. No logical reason why, I love navigation challenges, and I had a blast in Storm Eleanor on a rescue team night nav training this week. The pressure to be out in Scottish winter became less fun though.
Lead climb VD and reach 6b and lead 5 sport climbs. Where do I start with that one? Climbing terrifies me. It’s the one thing I do that I really have to be in the right frame of mind for and I’ve learnt I have to be with the right type of people too. So last year wasn’t that successful for climbing. I had lots of incidents of crying seconding routes and only managed to lead 3 diffs. I did get up to leading 5s indoors but again it matters a lot who I’m with and I found myself having wobbles on 4s sometimes.
Ice climbing seemed an easy one to tick off, weird since rock climbing scares me. But it was a holiday with friends who knew it was my first time out so there was no pressure to perform at any level. As it was, I loved it.
I managed 2 half marathons and a 25km race, with mixed success. The trail races nearly killed me but the Great North Run felt like a blast. I’ve failed to get a proper training pattern though so I never reached 60 parkruns, although I did get to 50.
While I did have a fantastic Alpine trip and did some great AD routes I did not lead anything, again down to confidence and being with people more experienced than me.
Skiing was an easy tick at the end of the year and I lost interest in riding a motorbike.
So you see my dilemma?
The things I really care about succeeding at are the ones I fail to achieve. The goals I set to achieve them become my barriers, no matter how small they are.
So here’s the plan for 2018.
To be kind to myself.
• I want to lead 3 severe routes and 7 VDs.
But it’s ok if I cry. It’s ok to say no to a route. It’s ok to pick easy stuff too. It’s ok if I get to the end of the year and have only got part way to this too. I’m going to try to second more harder stuff too though. I have a friend who would thing that’s a poor attitude to learning climbing and I should be sucking it up and getting stuck in. That approach didn’t make for happy climbing last year so I’m not doing that again.
• I want to run a marathon.
I might find this easier to do if I can find the time to train as I’m not the competitive person who needs to beat a certain time. Finishing is always my goal.
• I wanted to do my winter ML assessment in early 2019, but my recent winter experience had made me rethink this goal. I’m putting too much pressure on myself to perform, so instead I want to just get 20 winter days in and have fun. Then I’ll see what happens.
And that’s where I’m leaving it this year. I want to be kind to myself. Life isn’t about smashing out goals and punishing yourself for failures. I want to have fun in my adventures.
So if you have set goals for 2018, make sure you enjoy them. Don’t punish yourself for any set backs, just get outside and have fun.
I’ve driven down the Glencoe valley numerous times and looked up at the jagged line of the Aonach Eagach ridge, impressed with the shape and both desperate and terrified at the prospect of scrambling the ridge. I’ve wanted to tackle the ridge since I first visited North West Scotland aged 18, so when I was recently rained off a trip to scramble the Cullins I decided this was a perfect substitute.
I should caveat that as entertaining as the Aonach Eagach ridge is, if you’ve not yet completed routes such as Sharp Edge or Crib Goch then consider getting some serious grade 1 scrambles under your belt before you have a go at this. Its a serious undertaking, as nowhere along the route can you escape and some of the sections of scrambling are exposed and committing.
First things first…
The first thing to note doing this ridge is that is essential to have a plan for transport between the start and finish as the last thing you want to do is end up walking back up the busy road for your car at the end of the day.
We had planned on hitchhiking – but a summer weekend is the moment to try this with traffic being too busy to stop. After 15 minutes of trying we were not getting anywhere; then two other hikers arrived with the same idea – 4 of us had no chance of getting a lift. Thankfully they were off to do the ridge too so we decided to car share.
The car park at the start of the route is tiny and usually filled with tourists wanting to quickly photograph the mountains as they drive through the valley so I was lucky to squeeze my car into a spot.
We set off from the car park at a slow pace; the path up to Am Bodach might be easy to follow but it’s quite steep. Initially the path is across a broad ridge and is easy to follow, but its not long before the scrambling starts and route finding is required.
Scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge is really downclimbing, which requires good foot placements and a slow pace. The first of these sections comes after just leaving Am Bodach summit.
I was surprised to find the scrambling isn’t relentless, there are sections of the route where you resume walking. It is apparent from the views though that you really can’t escape the ridge once on it and the scrambling varies from terraced ridges, knife edge aretes, greasy gullys and towering chimneys.
Towards the end of the ridge are the Crazy Pinnacles, which we took by heading right and down climbing a fairly greasy gully. This is definitely not a route to do in the rain!
Once off the Crazy Pinnacles and over Stob Coire Leith the serious scrambling ends. From here make sure you continue on to the large shelter and trig point at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.
From here in good visibility its possible to see the path heading south west down to the Claichaig gully – do not take this as it is widely considered a dangerous descent route. Instead continue across heading north west towards the Pap of Glencoe. As you cross the broader peaty plateau you will pick up the descent path to take down to Glencoe and the valley.
We met a group of older men half way along the ridge who were definitely having trouble with the scrambling and taken 5 hours to get to the Pinnacles. Later when we were in the pub with a whiskey they were only just off the hill (12 hours after starting) – a reminder not to under-estimate the ridge.
The snow was like slush and the rock beneath like sand, not reassuring as I climbed the rockface trying to find a secure crack to stick my axe in, to pull me up.
There hadn’t been good conditions for alpine routes the week we were in Chamonix so being able to get onto anything felt like a bonus. The Pointe Lachenal Traverse is relatively easy to access via the Midi cable car and the snow arête descent. There was some trepidation as we headed up the cable car with the visibility being poor and it being considerable colder and windier than it had been for the last few days. At least it had stopped raining for long enough so we could get high.
Crossing the Glacier
I led the descent down the snow arête noting a lot more fresh snow than when we’d climbed a few days before on the Cosmiques Arete. As we descended down to the glacier the visibility dropped to about 100m, and at this point we were also breaking trail with the only other climbers already out heading for the Cosmiques.
It felt a lot like a wintery day in Scotland, minus the horizontal hail against my face.
As we headed across the blank space, being mindful of the glacier beneath our feet, we met two young alpinists looking for a route. With no map and little concept of how far across the glacier they had to descend to get to their desired climb, we made sure they had at least a good photograph of our map before they headed off into the fog.
Ascending the ridge
At least the cloud lifted as we got near Pointe Lachenal so we had a good view of the snow conditions on the route. Bare ice in parts. Due to the strong wind that had accompanied the last few days snow and rain, and the extremely warm temperatures that had preceded that, the ascent onto the ridge had been completely scoured and had become ice with the constant freeze/thaw.
Whilst the ascent onto Pointe Lachenal isn’t difficult we had to ensure we were properly protected, so ice screws were deployed. This was the advantage of moving as a pair as we could do this with speed. Unfortunately at this point my partner lost his sunglasses which merry whizzed off down the ice into the abyss below. For once we then started praying the sun didn’t come out otherwise he would be quickly snowblind. We climbed the bulge of snow on the left of the image below, and the route continues right across over the first two rock points to descend the snow on the right.
The ridge is fairly wide with only one awkward step round a rock before you reach the abseil point half way along the route.
With the abseil complete it was a straightforward traverse of a snow slope to reach the crux of the route. Ah lovely, more rock climbing in crampons.
As it was, the crux wasn’t actually that complex but due to the poor snow conditions and the loose terrain on the chimneys meant that it took a long time for my partner to find a good line to take up the route.
Here’s Andy topping out behind me; our group of three friends had caught us up on the ascent of the crux.
Andy’s exclamation that the crux was like a Scottish III maybe a IV made me pleased, yes I’d had a few moans en-route, but I got up it on second. (So fingers crossed for a good winter this year!)
The rest of the group were off to the Cosmiques hut to do the arete the following day. Having already done this a few days earlier, and my partner minus sunglasses at midday, we decided to head back.
Don’t underestimate yourself
If there’s one thing I learnt doing Alpine climbing is that I have to stop underestimating myself and have more confidence in my abilities.
Before we had left the Midi station that morning there was a lot of grumbling within our group and amongst other alpinists about the poor snow conditions and poor visibility. We had already seen two groups return from failing to get up Mont Blanc – poor snow conditions had led the Chamonix guides hut to recommend people did not try the mountain. We had certainly seen avalanches.
But I had felt confident in descending the snow arete and taking a look. Being in the blank fog didn’t faze me, I had a compass and was roped to someone I trusted if one of us was unfortunate enough to end up in a glacier. And I was confident enough to deal with it if it was him.
My last trip to the Alps led me to decide to do the Winter ML training, this trip has left me being confident to winter climb this season and consider other options too… watch this space!
“Pull me up!” I yelled as I clung on with my fingers jammed in a narrow crack of slimy wet rock and my huge mountaineering boots failing to balance on a tiny ledge bearly visible. I was sliding and failing to remain attached to the rock face. ‘There’s a reason there’s only English climbers up here today’ I thought as it crossed my mind we hadn’t seen anyone else climbing all day.
Sliding on La Somone
It was more than disappointing when after only one day of Alpine climbing we ended up trapped in the valley by poor weather. Like good Brits who are used to torrential rain and getting soaked to the skin, we didn’t want a bit of rain to prevent us having a great holiday. So after a good soaking on the first wet day walking through the woodlands, we decided it wasn’t that wet really and headed out to Le Brevent to climb La Somone.
‘It will be like climbing in Wales’ we remarked as we got on the empty cable car. It was cold when we got off at the top of Le Brevent but not freezing so why not climb?!
I’m not sure how we decided La Somone was a great route to climb, or how we found it in the mist. I’m also not sure why we hadn’t decided to stay in the Valley to climb something slightly less slimy. The thought did cross my mind that it might be a bit ridiculous when it started to snow as I stood at the bottom of the route belaying my partner.
When it came for me to climb the third pitch – 4c – the ‘excellent flakes’ as described by the guidebook, were not really appealing for standing on in big mountaineering boots and especially not in the rain.
It wasn’t my finest hour wailing and sliding on the rock and ultimately requiring me to be hauled up. Perhaps I should have gone gear shopping in Chamonix?
Multipitch sport climbing on Vois Caline
After the slime fest the prospect of sport climbing in the valley sunshine the next day was very appealing. Especially since the route finished at a Buvette where we could get lunch.
Vois Caline is one of three long multi-pitch routes at Les Mottets crag and at 350m of 3c climbing it was a nice scrambly route compared to the day before and one I had no worries about doing in mountaineering boots.
Ok the grade was easy, but I was still impressed with myself for leading three of the 5 pitches (my first ever sport climbing leads!) including one horribly damp slab traverse. There’s plenty of bolts on this route and since its a low grade its easy to move together. I really enjoyed this route which was a massive contrast to the day before!
“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.
I started the year with a goal to do harder Alpine routes, so when the KMC organised a trip to Chamonix it was a perfect opportunity to get high and tackle more complicated terrain. My ultimate goal requires me to have all the skills I need to no longer rely on anyone else.
I love being out the snow, be it the harshest winter in Scotland or Alpine days in the sunshine. I know though that these will always lead me to a moment where I’m muttering under my breathe, or worse swearing out loud.
But for all the complaining I know that I’m capable and just need to get on with it.
Tackling alpine ridges
The Cosmiques Arête is a 350 metre ridge of climbing and scrambling. The guidebook recommends around 4 hours, but you need to factor in the 1 hour of descending the snow arête from the Aguille de Midi station and crossing the glacier, and any potential queue you might encounter on this popular route.
I’ve previously only done Alpine routes which require basic winter skills, ability to walk in crampons and front point up snow slopes. But after a winter ice climbing in Norway I was ready for routes that were more challenging.
I was excited when I led us out of the Midi station and we descended the steep snow slope. Looking down on Chamonix from 3800m is always exciting. The route to the bottom of the ridge is relatively straightforward, following the arête to its end near the Cosmiques hut.
Much of the Cosmiques Arête is nothing more than a winter scramble. We had been unlucky to be tackling the route on Saturday and hadn’t been able to get on the first cable car, so our first challenge was to overtake as many of the groups as we could. Particularly the slower guided groups.
Trying not to self sabotage
My worst trait when I’m out is self doubt. Can I really climb that route? Is my prussic really wrapped right for this abseil and will it hold me? What’s after that difficult bit and can I do it?
I find that questioning myself like this leads to a negative cycle of feeling like I can’t achieve something and lack of confidence in the skills I have. I’m not rubbish – I’ve been climbing for 2 years now and while I struggle with confidence and fear of leading, I’m perfectly capable of seconding VS routes when I put my mind to it. Even the odd HVS.
So when I arrived at the first abseil and muttered out loud that I needed my partner to check my abseil set up before he headed off, I immediately sabotaged myself. In giving a voice to my fears I made them real and also made him worry about my ability; which just made it worse. I hate people assuming I can’t do something; I hate being taken care of.
The first abseil was straight forward and despite swinging into a chimney I had no problems. But voicing my fears meant my partner insisted on abseiling the next pitch together, which didn’t impress me.
Dangling the Crux
From the bottom of the abseils we traversed round to reach the crux – an 8m slab with a thin diagonal crack, graded ay 4c. Should be easy enough, especially since there’s pre drilled pockets for crampons, and especially as someone had left a cam in the crack to pull on. But climbing a rock face in crampons at altitude was not going to go well for me. Was it lack of skills or confidence? Did I just sabotage myself as I’d said out loud that I thought I was going to struggle?
As I was dangling, struggling to get my crampon points to stay in the pockets and get my weak arms to pull me up the crack I discovered a general dislike of Alpine guides.
Yes I caused a queue. But then there was one there before we arrived.
Yes I complained and took ages. But there wasn’t any need for the French guides to be rude and abusive. (I’m generalising by saying French as the Italian guide directly behind me was encouraging and helpful).
It was also clear once I’d dragged my sorry self up the face that the guides were dragging their clients along with little regard for them and relying on other climbers to help the clients make certain moves over rocks. Their only concern was to get the route done as fast as possible, with some of the clients not even understanding to pull out gear from a route. I collected 2 cams and a sling as swag before the end of the route.
I know I’m generalising there, as we met some other guides I met during the course of the week who were amazing with their clients – but the ones I met on the Arête were not.
The final gully
The final section of the arête isn’t complicated at all, a scramble up a steep gully onto the top and up the ladder to the top of the cable car. However, the queue at the crux and it being midday meant that there was a hoard of climbers now headed up the route and guides dragging clients behind them. It made me think of the images of climbers queuing on Everest and how I never want to be in that sort of place. Its not what I want out of climbing routes.
The joy of being fatigued at the end of completing any alpine route from the Midi is that if you look sufficiently knackered you can queue jump the hoards of tourists to get back down the cable car by looking a bit tired and smiling at the staff. I can easily adopt my best pathetic-tired face if it gets me to ice cream quicker!
Sometimes in life the best adventures are those you don’t choose for yourself. The Dales Way doesn’t involve bog trotting or peak bagging, but instead winds through picturesque valleys and villages following the rivers. It was a beautiful weekend; full of wildflower meadows, sheep and sunshine. Except for the day we got thoroughly soaked in a thunderstorm, but more about that later.
The suggestion for Sharon and I to do a long distance walk together was first uttered over beers at Christmas (were we drunk?) and despite the potential for it to be forgotten about after the hangovers had vanished we committed to completing the Dales Way – a route which could be done over a long weekend.
Covering 80-ish miles (that’s the official length!) the Dales Way passes through villages as it follows rivers from Ilkley to Windermere.
Day 1 – Ilkley to Kettlewell – 22 miles
It was a very early start to get to Ilkley – Sharon’s dog Ted was as excited to be on a train journey to Ilkley as he was about the long walk ahead. Sharon and I were excited too but also aware we’d set the challenge of a 22 mile hike to Kettlewell and it was a very hot day.
The route from Ilkley winds along the River Wharfe northwards, through little clusters of houses and cross under the busy A59 as it reaches Bolton Abbey. This 6 mile stretch felt harder than it should as Ted was busy keeping cool in the river and we were baking in the sunshine. So arriving at Bolton Abbey at lunchtime we decided ice creams were in order.
Bolton Abbey is hardly a hidden delight as it is popular tourist attraction, but its the first delight you pass through on the Dales Way. The grounds of the 12th Century Augustinian monastery are worth a visit in their own right but provide a spectacular back drop to the walk and the route winds through the grounds woodlands as it crosses the River Wharfe.
Eventually we reached Burnsall, a usual stop over on the route but for us a quick stop before we carried on to the suspension bridge over the river at Hebden.
The narrow suspension bridge across the River Wharfe at the tiny village of Hebden was built by the village blacksmith, William Bell in 1885, with 262 yards of redundant steel rope. It is quite narrow so you might have a tight squeeze if you’re carrying a very large rucksack!
From here our next big stopping point was Grassington – at which time it had also become late enough to justify a stop at a pub for food and drink. This was a great idea but did make it very difficult to start walking again to reach our final destination for the day at Kettlewell. It was tempting to keep drinking in the pub!
Out of Kettlewell the Dales Way heads on to the fells of Lea Green, past old hut circles and across the limestone pavements above Swinebar Scar. As we started to descend into Kettlewell the sun was setting across the River Wharfe, making for a magical finish to our walk for the day.
Day 2 – Kettlewell to Gearstones – 16 miles
Our overnight stay at the Bluebell Inn had set us up for a day of walking, a good sleep and good food. It was such a good morning we didn’t start till 10.30am and following the river we meandered through wildflower fields towards Buckden, the sun was shining and Ted was having fun playing in the river.
Reaching Buckden it started to cloud over and as we joined the road at Hubberholme we could hear the thunder in the distance. By the time we got to Yockenthwaite it was already raining heavily. From there it rained on and off until the heavens opened at Beckermonds and we got totally soaked as we crossed the river and started to head along the road. With heads down we trudged along.
The route to Oughtershaw was a plod along the road, but once there we started heading along a track past Nethergill and Swarthgill farms before heading out on to the fellside.
Heading up to Cam Houses and onto the hill top to join the Pennine Way the rain started to come down heavily and we were totally soaked on the plod down the track to Gearstones.
This isn’t the most inspirational part of the route at the best of times, I’ve walked this previously when doing the Pennine Way and thought then it should only be tackled on a mountain bike. So to trudge down the hill in the heavy rain was a bit of a demoralising end to the day.
We’d been unable to get accommodation locally so we were lucky to hide in the hostel out of the rain while our taxi arrived to take us to Hawes. There seems to only be two taxis locally, both very competitive with each other but thankfully one was happy to pick up two soaked women and a damp dog.
Carrying all our own kit and travelling light, we were very grateful that the White Hart Inn in Hawes let us dry our clothes in their drier.
Day 3 – Gearstones to Sedbergh – 16 miles
Thankfully the rain held off for the route out of Wharfedale and into Dentdale as we headed across the fields and down the road under the Dent Viaduct.
This section of the route includes a lot of road walking on country lanes and so we were pleased to reach Ewegales and start to head through the wildflower meadows towards Dent. Late spring is definitely the best time to walk this section of the route to see field of Bistort, Eyebright, Buttercups, Yellow Rattle, Red clover and Meadowsweet.
The fields in Dentdale are not bounded by dry stones walls like elsewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, but by laid hedges creating habitats and making the valley look softer and much more picturesque.
After food at Dent we continued down the valley along the river and on country roads, eventually heading over the hill towards Sedbergh. By now Ted had worked out how to tackle the ladder stiles too. His first was a bit of a panicked scramble, a bit like me when I’m rock climbing!
Day 4 – Sedbergh to Burnside – 16 miles
Breakfast at the Wheelwright Cottage was an experience, sat with two ultra runners completing the route in 3 days we stuffed ourselves with a full English breakfast on fine china plates. Ted got leftovers too.
The route out of Sedbergh was a contrast to Dentdale – gone were the wildflower meadows as the path follows the river under viaducts and past farms.
The viaducts in this area are part of the former Lune Valley railway and would make fantastic cycleways if there was money to invest in them. The Lune viaduct is made of Penrith stone with a huge cast iron central arch which carried the track 100 feet above the river.
After a morning of drizzle the weather did as predicted and stopped at 2pm so we had a pleasant afternoon walk through fields, eventually crossing the M6 and into Cumbria.
Day 5 – Burneside to Windermere – 10 miles
We’d planned to set off walking for 9am so that we wouldn’t have to rush our last day reaching Windermere station with plenty of time for the 3pm train we had booked.
However we both overslept and so had a mad dash out for breakfast and so we didn’t get going until 9.30am. Despite being tired we managed a decent pace to leave Burneside.
The route isn’t pretty as it heads out of Burneside around the back of the large Mill, but it eventually leaves town and heads through fields along the River Kent to Staveley.
We had decided to branch off at the bridleway to finish at Windermere station making it easy for our journey home.
The Dales Way isn’t an adventure I would have chosen for myself, but was an opportunity for me to enjoy an adventure with a friend something I’ve not done often. What I learnt is that adventures don’t have to include mountains or extreme endurance to be achievements and the Dales Way is a fantastic route, accessible for all at whatever pace you wish to complete it.
I hate caving. I know hate is a strong word but having had a go I can honestly say, I hate caving. Wading around with wet feet inside cold wellies wearing a rubber boil-in-the-bag suit with a fibre pile onesie underneath so any physical exertion leads to being really sweaty. Having a mild panic attack in the dark, when the choice presented to you is to either wriggle through a tiny slot barely big enough to fit in or to slide down rock and somehow avoid landing in the pool of freezing water at the bottom. I feel a bit sick just thinking about it now. There’s always the choice to turn around but I’m not a quitter and like to push my boundaries of fear.
Learning rope access skills
Venturing into Alum Pot
I admit to being filled with a sense of dread after hearing two cavers spent Saturday night trapped underground nearby and had not been rescued till 5am. So I was a bit happier that Sunday’s trip out was to Alum Pot, a day lit shaft that descends 80m into the ground. At least I wasn’t going to spend all day in the dark I thought.
We initially headed upstream, wading through the river to reach Dr Bannister’s Handbasin, a huge underground pool. We had an awkward climb up a short waterfall to exit the last bit of the cave, awkward enough but much more so in wellies.
Once back out in the real world, we walked back down to the entrance to head downstream and into Alum Pot itself. The route down wasn’t too complicated and involved mostly walking through passage ways or around the edge of pools.
It was along this bit of the route that I was presented with the option of squeezing through a narrow crack to wriggle through, or sliding further down rock to avoid a pool. I can confess that watching Jess crawl through the gap and even thinking about having to follow her, made feel sick and teary. I opted for the slide down and managed to avoid the plunge pool.
From here we continued to ‘Dollytubs’, a roped descent down 15m to where we could see Alum Pot and daylight. Descending Dollytubs required a traverse along a ledge and to reclip the rope past a deviation as we descended.
Even getting my descender (stop) onto the rope felt like a mental effort as I leaned over the drop. Ben did point out to me to just get my bum on the wall to balance, clearly logical thinking isn’t a skill of mine when I’m concentrating on not panicking! Despite always being clipped to a rope and therefore safe, I didn’t have faith in the gear, which is ridiculous I know. Clipped to a rope I wasn’t going to fall. So every time I had to faff with the stop I felt a bit uneasy.
I was happy to get into Alum Pot and see daylight, and the descent down Greasy Slab was actually pleasant in the daylight. Alum Pot feels like another world when you look up to daylight, surrounded by leafy vegetation, moss and slime.
It was like being in Jurassic Park, another world that I wouldn’t ever see again and that hikers who pass by the surface never get to see. I knew I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there.
The 45m descent down from below ‘The Bridge’ the large rock seen in the photo above, wasn’t really any more difficult that anything I’d done so far, only one deviation clip to get passed by unclipping and re-clipping.
Dangling in free space with daylight showing how far away the floor of the cave was, and the roaring sound of the waterfall pouring down made the whole thing feel a lot more scary. Plus having to sort out a deviation which was more than an arms length away and manage to re-clip it back on the rope without letting go of it was stressful.
By the time I eventually got to the bottom of the rope I only had to walk along and do one more 20m descent down to reach the Sump, an underground pool and the end of the cave system. But on seeing the last rope descend down into the dark again and trying to sort out my rope whilst getting soaked under a waterfall I’d reached the edge of my mental strength.
Am I disappointed I didn’t see the Sump? As I sarcastically put to Ben as he tried to encourage me to continue, “its just a puddle”. Ok, I’m sure to cavers out there the Sump is something special and worth a visit, but I just didn’t care enough at that point to carry on. I was mentally wiped out.
I’m still not disappointed either. I don’t have a great head for heights which is a problem with climbing at the best of time, but in dark and wet caves I’d found my limit. I felt bad for letting Ben down. For me it was a big enough achievement to have got to where it did.
Hauling myself back up the 45m rope was challenging enough for me.
Whilst I’m unlikely to ever go caving again, I would recommend a trip into Alum Pot if you can find someone to take you. Its not somewhere to go without experience – you need to be able to rig the ropes and understand ascending and descending safely. Being able to do that with Ben and Aly was great.
I was totally amazed and grateful for Aly’s calm and cool manner in dealing with me, being stubborn and sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot. She’s an amazing caver and clearly really good at coping with novices like me. She was also out in front the whole weekend rigging the ropes and taking responsibility for safety. Whilst I’m not sure caving would ever have been for me even if I’d started younger, I believe girls need more role models like Aly. I found her totally inspiring.
I’d also like to say a massive thanks to Ben for letting me tag along, for being a good teacher and being calm when teaching me skills, and giving me the opportunity to see the amazing world of Alum Pot. And for taking photos – without which I’d have manage to banish all memory of the day!
I never expected to love ice climbing. I also never expected to climb for 5 out of 6 days in Norway. I expected to find myself sight seeing and looking for a spa.
When I got the invite to go ice climbing in Rjukan, Norway from the Karabiner MC I genuinely though they were joking. To start with I’m not a full member yet. Then there’s the fact that any time I’ve been outdoor climbing with them it’s generally involved a lot of swearing, embarrassment and disco legs. And a few tears.
But I hate to pass up any opportunity – I live with the Fear Of Missing Out. What if I never get the chance again? What if passing on this opportunity prevents me from reaching my Big Goal?
So armed with borrowed climbing axes and an unusual sense of optimism I headed off to Norway with a group of climbers who were either very experience on ice, or really good rock climbers. I am neither. With years of winter mountaineering experience I do however have confidence in crampons so I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by gear and technique.
Rjukan is a fantastic place to go for a first trip water ice climbing – so if you can find some experienced friends willing to teach you, get yourself there. Only 3 hours drive from Oslo its really accessible and also a great venue for skiing, (which I can’t do either).
The first day was at Krokan, the ice equivalent of Stanage – loads of short waterfalls of varying grades and a short walk from the road. Its a reliable venue for climbing in the valley due to its elevation. It is also as busy as Stanage so get there early, especially at the weekend.
I managed to top rope and second 4 routes at Krokan – with my first being a WI4 – Kjøkkentrappa. Steep sections but at no point did I feel terrified in the way I do on rock. In fact after a day climbing here I was really excited about the rest of the week.
I had such a good time at Krokan and I was feeling really confident seconding some of the lower grades and so I was keen to led by the end of the week.
The following day we headed to Ozzimosis – a series of waterfalls hidden in the woods. Again another good spot with easy grades and more classic routes. I seconded another 4 routes and I even perfected my abseil techniques.
I hate abseiling but it’s an essential skill for water ice climbing as most waterfalls require an abseil off the top. By perfected I mean after 20 minutes of dangling on my own with Andy laughing from the bottom I managed to get the jammed prussik knot to move so I could descend.
Ozzimosis itself is a beast of a waterfall graded WI4 that I never got around to trying. Andy was leading the route, Steve was belaying to second it and I was going to top rope.
But as Andy was climbing he brought ice down on Steve’s arm, resulting in a lot of loud swearing a panicked rush from me to grab the rope from him while Andy made himself safe and a later trip to A&E to Steve – expensive but at least he was ok and back climbing later in the week.
It wasn’t the only injury of the day as Stuart bashed himself in the face trying to get his axe out of the ice and Jared twisted his ankle coming off a route. At this point I was keeping a mental list of injury free climbers in our group.
After a day off from climbing to hiked up Gaustatoppen in gale force winds and sub arctic cold (that’s another story!) I headed to Upper Gorge with Elliott, Alex and James to climb Lettvann, my first multi pitch water ice route.
Upper Gorge is the next series of waterfalls down the valley from Krokan and has some fantastic multi pitch routes.
Lettvann is only graded WI2 and 3 pitches, which after two days climbing harder grades I felt confident was well within my ability.
I learnt an important point on Lettvann. Whilst it is graded WI2 and well within my comfort zone, being a slabby route it was much more punishing on my calves than some of the short steeper routes I’d been doing, due to the need to keep your front points in and your heels down.
It took most of the day to climb the 3 pitches of Lettvann, with us eventually topping out in the sunshine in the woods.
James was our injury of the climb as he was hit by falling ice, though he was ok. (So thats 4 out of 8 of us….)
The following day Elliot, Alex and I headed out early to do Fabrikfossen a 7 pitch route within walking distance from Rjukan town centre. The walk in to the waterfall isn’t fun; bashing through woodland to reach the bottom of the waterfall and it takes about a hour.
We started early to beat other teams but despite this we were climbing as a three and so were quickly overtaken by pairs climbing.
Fabrikfossen is a classic route to do but being in the shade all day it was really cold and being slow as a group of three I spent much of the time dancing on the belays in order to keep warm – despite having 5 layers of clothing on.
Due to the temperature dropping and the ice ‘dinner plating’ as it was being hit with axes we were also being pelted by frozen ice from the climbers above. Somewhere between being hit in the cheek and then on either wrist and then freezing while hanging about on belays I lost the love for climbing and we bailed out at pitch 3. Alex also got hit by a large ice block, hard enough to dent his helmet badly enough to finally make me realise ice climbing is actually pretty dangerous. (finally injury/ice smash tally = 6 out of 8 of us)
Whilst disappointed with not completing the route, the abseiling back down through the trees and then the walk back to the road took nearly 2 hours so we were glad not have finished the route in the dark.
Back to Krokan
We finished the week with another day climbing at Krokan.
I had started the week wanting to lead a route. But after a week climbing I was pretty knackered and mentally drained so opted for pushing my grade on a top rope instead. So I was quite pleased to climb my first WI5 as my last route of the trip. Much more arm pumps by kinder to the calf muscles that the last 2 days.
Its 11am – I’ve already got frozen snot across my face and my buff has frozen with my breath. The goggles I loved earlier in the week have failed me and I feel like I’m in a white out as they’ve misted up.
It was windy and cold as we headed up onto the Cairngorm plateau on Thursday, in search of somewhere to spend the night. We spent most of the day leading each other on navigational legs, predominantly heading into the South-Easterly wind. It was a time for head down trudge and holding on tightly to the map. Having lost one person from the group at the start of the day due to fitness, the pace had suddenly quickened and as we had to start breaking trail through the deep wind slab it was a lot of effort to keep up a good pace to keep from being cold in the wind.
Looking for obscure contour features in these conditions was a test of endurance more than it was of ability.
As you can imagine I’ve never been so happy as when we reached our snow hole spot at Ciste Mhearad at 3pm. Especially when we found old snow holes which we could get away with extending. It still took 3 hours of digging before we could sit in relative comfort for an hour of melting enough snow to eat freeze-dried food before we headed out for night navigation practice.
The one thing I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading at the same time is snowholing on the expedition section of the Winter Mountain Leader training. My technique for digging leaves a lot to be desired (as had been confirmed earlier in the week), and I would have still been there at midnight if I had to dig one on my own. I’d rather walk off the hill in a blizzard than spend 3 hours or more digging into the hillside. I’d night nav any day but dig another snow hole? No way!
The trick to snowholing in comfort is a good bivvy bag, a thick thermarest and a good sleeping bag. I had none of these as I’d borrowed kit from Glenmore Lodge to save weight on my train journey, which meant I had a decent bivvy bag, but a thin sleeping bag and one of those thin foam mats you give Duke of Edinburgh groups with an apologetic face because you know they’re not going to keep out the cold.
I did however pack a second warm jacket and another hat so that I could sleep in relative comfort – when I did wake it was only because my leg had started to go dead lying on the hard ice. Oh and for a wee about 3am but there was no way I was going outside, so I crossed my legs till dawn.
Cooking in a snowhole is a case of high calorie/ low taste food – boil in the bag or freeze-dried and a lot of snacks. I’d usually try to drink a lot of fluid at night when out on trips when I know I’ll struggle to hydrate during the day, but faced with a trip out at night for a wee I limited the bedtime drinks.
Navigating at night
I was lucky to end up spending the evening with Nigel, Glenmore Lodge’s navigational guru who gave me and Jo plenty of top tips for navigating in horrendous wind using only contours. We both aced the challenging navigational features we had to find.
Nigel gave us a range of obscure features, some of which like Marquis Well where hard to distinguish in the frozen landscape. It was a great lesson in navigating just using contour features – using the shape of the landscape to identify your location.
From an obscure feature on Cairngorm summit I had to find the cairn and Jo had to find the weather station. So we wandered on a bearing in separate directions with a fair amount of praying to find the right spot. I’ve never been so happy to find a trig point at 9pm on a Thursday night in a 40 mph wind and a sideways blasting of snow.
Nigel’s top tip is ‘travel to unravel, move to prove’ – always check where you are by moving around and seeing what the landscape does. He also recommends orienteering as a means of excelling in micro navigation, learning to read contours without using bearings and learning how to walk on a bearing without setting your compass (that one is really quick but seemed like magic in the dark and howling wind).
Jo and I got back to the snow hole about 10pm and both of us slept relatively well considering the cold (and urge to pee). Nevertheless I was pleased when morning came and I could head out into a calm morning. There’s nothing like a wild wee when you’re not worried about your bum freezing in the wind!
Navigating in the sunshine
The trouble with it being a gorgeous morning was that our navigational challenges were going to have to be a lot more difficult, given that we had such good visibility. In the glorious sunshine we bagged Cairngorm summit for a second time.
We then headed down into Coire Raibert to a couple of contour feature.
It was then my turn to lead the group and of course my leg was a relentless ascent through wind slab, break trailing all the way up to Stob Coire an T-Schneachda summit. This was a brutal leg in the blazing sunshine with heavy packs so I was relieved to reach the top. Just look at the view!
From here we bagged the summit of the peak otherwise known as 1141, before we descended down to the ski runs and the path back to the car park.
Debrief and reflection
After fueling up with my third cake of the day and a second hot chocolate, we each got a debrief for the week. I know my log book needs more work – but otherwise I just need to get out and get the required number of days in before I book the assessment.
Prior to assessment I need to do another 40 Quality Mountain days, but that doesn’t include days out leading groups or days which aren’t the definition of ‘Quality’ – long or complicated. I also need to have done 10 grade 1 climbs to prove my confidence on steep ground – I don’t see this being an issue as I’m planning winter climbing trips.
I headed into the Winter Mountain Leader training being a bit non-committal about whether I’d do the assessment since at the moment it’s all for personal development. Despite a challenging week I’ve realised I have more confidence that I thought I did in winter and while I have a lot to do, I’m super keen to work towards the assessment in the next few years.
Here’s to more winter adventures!!!